Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Chapter five: The Atheist in Church

Previous Chapter

Lewis is a dice man, a Stochastacist, an Everite. The Everites believe that our world is one of an infinite number of universes, which are constantly branching away from ours in a flux of quantum events and alternate realities. The implications of this can be mind numbing, but the Everites take it to mean that people can create universes, or at least control the nature of the universes that are created by human action. They do this by rolling dice or using other random activities to guide their choices. I'm not sure of the exact reasoning behind it.

On the other hand, Lewis says that the whole thing might be just a front for running gambling operations. The Everites do own a few dozen floating (literally) casinos.

But that's Lewis. He was born and raised a Stochastacist, and he's had some of the same doubts of faith that other religions are prey to. In fact, he was in one of those periods of doubt when I met him. He'd put the whole thing on the line by following a series of dice rolls that told him to leave his old life, and head for Sky City, float or founder, or whatever. And on his way to the City, I'd dropped in on him, owing to a series of events that I'm still not clear on. I'd wound up in a bloon that was falling due to some sabotage, and I'd managed to use one of the steering bodies to glide over to Lewis' drag line. So Lewis' dice mission probably saved my life. It was all so unlikely that it also reaffirmed his faith, and since that time, I've been his personal totem. He's often said that he'll join me in just about anything I ask him to do, without a dice roll before the fact, because there's nothing that the dice can tell him that's more of a chance than following me.

I still haven't figured Lewis out, actually.

But he said yes to my offer of a short vacation, so the next sunrise found us boarding a sail bloon and pushing off from the hotel cluster. Sunrise is about the brightest that it gets in Darkunder; some direct light edges under the City for a couple of hours in the mornings and at sunset. It's a good time for departures, because there aren't that many bloons up and running then. We made our way to the City's northwestern edge under a combination of power and drag line, then cut our fans and settled in for the slow sail to the cluster where Molly and her mother had lived.

After the first hour of setting our wind panels, lifting trefoil and drag line, there wasn't much to do until we reached our destination. The tack was an easy one, giving us a straightedge to where we wanted to go. So mid-morning by the clock found us with our chores completed. Lewis put on some music from one of the public channels, and I leaned back against one of the pod chairs in the bloon and closed my eyes for a rest.

"How'd you sleep last night, pardner?" Lewis asked me.

"I didn't sleep very much," I admitted. "I was checking some things, packing, you know."

"Nightmares again, huh?" Lewis is so guileless that he can get away with things like that.

"Some," I said. "Pretty bad ones, as a matter of fact."

"Think it has anything to do with the dead girl? Molly?"

"Probably," I said. "I don't know why this one should get to me, though. It's not like I haven't seen plenty of stiffs before. Maybe it's just a coincidence."

"Seen many stiffs lately?" he asked. "I thought you were the quiet type."

"Those are the dangerous ones," I joked. "He always seemed so quiet. How were we to know that he'd go berserk with a plasma drill?"

"Plasma drill?"

"Miners tool," I answered. "Very dangerous. We had to investigate an accident involving one a few years after I joined the Luna City Police Force. Out away from the city in one of the meteor mines. There was some thought that one of the miners had gone psycho. Turned out to be just an accident, though. Not that the twenty guys it cooked were any the less dead."

For some reason, I'll tell Lewis things that I won't tell other people. That was the first time I'd thought about the plasma drill incident in years. When Lewis saved my life, maybe he became my father confessor or something. That would be only fair, given my religious importance to him. Of course, that would imply that I was in need of confession. And absolution.

Lewis hummed along with the Vivaldi for a while, not following up on his questions. He always seems to know when to stop.

"Tell me something," I asked him at last. It occurred to me that my ongoing lack of sleep had produced something very much like intoxication. "Have I looked particularly threatening the past few days? Even more than usual, I mean." I smiled to show that I understood that I'm not Mr. Warm and Fuzzy even at my most mellow.

"Well, you can be a pretty scary guy just ordering a sandwich," he said. "But now that you mention it, I'd have to say that it's been pretty obvious that something has been eating you, and whatever it is, it's got pretty sharp teeth."

"Sensei Mack talked said that I was holding a wild animal that was about ready to slip the leash." I told Lewis of Mack's request.

"That sounds like a case of 'atheist in church,'" Lewis said when I was finished.

"Atheist in church?" I asked. "More wise sayings from the Founder?" Lewis was not above quoting from the writings of the Founder of Stochasticism, who is never referred to by name, mainly because he gave so many names, all of them false. Quite a Trickster was the Founder.

"The very same," Lewis said. "The Founder had a lot of things to say about religion and what place it has in society. 'The Atheist in Church' is one of his best essays. He says, look, there are a whole slew of reasons for having churches. They're a form of social organization, you meet people, get moral instruction helpful for living in society. They can be a store of wealth, a means of education, all that stuff. So even an atheist might wish to join a church, regardless of what his opinion of the theology might be.

"But an atheist makes the theists nervous. He can abide by all the same rules, profess the same moral code, and still the regular churchmen don't like his presence. He's not committed to the group, you see. He doesn't say the password. A secret password can't be something that you can figure out by just being reasonable, it has to be something arbitrary. So religions make their believers do things that just don't make sense. That's what really defines the group, the things they do that don't make sense."

"So what does that have to do with me?" I asked him.

"It's a matter of freedom," he said. "We like to think that freedom is a good thing, but joining society means giving up some freedoms. And society doesn't want it to be a conditional thing. It's not supposed to be a matter of choice. We much prefer to have people who can't rather than won't transgress. Which is the better husband, the man who couldn't beat his wife no matter how he feels, or the man who simply refrains?"

I opened my eyes to see how closely he was watching me when he said that. But he was staring out a view panel at the clouds. "I thought that the whole point of it was moral choices," I said. "You talk as if not having a choice is better."

"'Lead us not into temptation,'" he quoted. "Because we might succumb." He looked over at me and grinned. In my current exhausted state it looked a little like a grimace.

"There are a lot of things in life that we don't know about until they happen to us. It's a lot of potential rather than actual freedom. And the potential may be bogus. We might not be able to do it when push comes to shove. That's part of what dice living is about. To test the limits. But if you do it from the dice, the gods might not get so angry at the freedom. That's a clear thread in most mythology. The gods get very angry when confronted by a free man."

"So do you think that it's just the gods being angry with me?" I asked. I smiled again to show that I thought it was a joke.

His face got a bit more serious though. "That's all metaphor," he said. "'A man's reach must exceed his grasp, else what's a meta for?' The gods are stand-ins for human fate in human society. Stick your head up too far and the body politic will try to shear it off. You make people nervous, pardner. They don't know what motivates you. They don't know what you're capable of, but they're pretty sure you're capable of more than they want to know. If there's the choice of having dinner with someone who hated me and wished me dead -- but couldn't do me harm no matter what -- versus someone who liked me, but could kill me without a thought if he so chose, well, most people would go for the first guy, not the second."

I sat up and looked at him carefully, but he was back to watching the cloud patterns. I looked out at them, but I knew that he saw things in them that I'd never see. And vice versa.

"What about you?" I asked. "You said 'most people,' but you don't say about yourself."

He looked at me and grinned. "Oh, I'd probably go with the first guy also; at least I'd load the dice that way." He paused for a moment. That's the secret of the punchline: timing.

"Present company excepted, of course," he said.


Sometime on the trip, and much to my surprise, I drifted off into a blessed, dreamless sleep. Hours later, Lewis woke me by turning up the volume on the music and switching it on and off. I expect he didn't want to be too close to me when I awoke.

"Hey, pardner," he called to me as I was blinking my eyes to clear them of sleep. "We're getting near to where we're going. Would you care to tell me about this place, or should I look upon the whole thing as a learning experience?"

"Uh, sure," I said as I sat up. Usually I come awake quickly, in full awareness of my surroundings. I wondered if I was coming down with a cold or something.

I pulled up the screen on my rented comm unit and refreshed my memory of what I'd gleaned from the main cluster database in the City.

"It's a light craft and trading cluster, named Taylorville for the founding family." I said. "It took up a position relative to Sky City about fifty years ago. Main export is treated and sewn bloonskin -- and water, of course. Hit a bit of a snag when the water price dropped after Luna captured Comet Alpha, but recovered well enough since then. Population is about fifteen hundred, so it's a sizable cluster. Grows most of its own food. That's all we have in the database, unless I go into the archives."

"So why are we going there?" he asked me. "From what you say, this Molly Laird girl, she left there almost a year ago."

"Yeah, but she was raised there, and her mother was born there. So her people may be here. If she has relatives, they're probably here. Or someone may know where she went. I wanted to get a feel for her background."

He nodded. "Okay, old son," he said. "We'll find out who she was. Seems only fair, actually."

"Yeah," I repeated. "Only fair."


Taylorville was a big cluster, with several layers. The top layer was farm, of course, but enough light seeps through a single bloon layer to keep the second layer viable. So the second layer of Taylorville was for living and working space. The cluster was oddly shaped, more like a flattened dumbbell than circular. I wondered why it looked like it did. The middle area that connected the two roundish outer clusters was where we docked.

There were a lot of docking bays. Taylorville did a lot of trading with bloon fishermen, as all farm and craft clusters must, so they had plenty of room for a bloon to park. Lewis was pilot as we made our approach, and he slicked it in so smoothly that we didn't have to use fans, not even at the last moment when we touched the dock grabbers. The velk grabbed our nose and we tossed our line, which was picked up by a dock attendant and wrapped around an anchor hitch.

"Yo!" Lewis called out to the attendant. "We're at Taylorville, right?"

"You bet!" came the reply, somewhat muffled through the bubble mask our greeter wore. I saw that it was a teenaged girl, small and dark, with the sort of energy that brims out of a body at that age. "You traders?"

"Naw," said Lewis. "We're from Sky City. We've got some talk business with your head guy."

"That'd be Andrew," she said as she handed us the counterweights to balance our bloon when we stepped off. "He told us to expect you. You made good time."

"Hey, any time's good when there's a pretty girl at the end of it," Lewis said. The girl giggled in response.

"I'm Anne," she said. She shook Lewis' hand then helped him step down onto the dock.

"This here is Ed," Lewis told her as I followed him down. Anne took my hand in greeting. "Don't let his looks fool you," Lewis told her. "Stands to reason that nobody can be both that mean and that ugly." Anne giggled again.

"I'm pleased to meet you, Anne," I told her.

"Howdy, Ed," she replied. "Lewis tells me good things about you."

"Lewis is a liar," I told her. And she giggled yet again.

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